Monkey Selfie

Celebes crested macaque

The monkey selfie copyright dispute is a series of disputes about the copyright status of selfies taken by a group of macaques using equipment belonging to the British nature photographer David Slater.

The disputes involve Wikimedia Commons and the blog ‘Techdirt,’ which have hosted the images following their publication in newspapers in July 2011 over Slater’s objections, and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), who have argued that the macaque should be assigned the copyright.

Slater has argued that he has a valid copyright claim based on the fact that he engineered the situation that resulted in the pictures, by travelling to Indonesia, befriending a group of wild macaques, and setting up his camera equipment in such a way that a ‘selfie’ picture might come about. The Wikimedia Foundation’s 2014 refusal to remove the pictures from its Wikimedia Commons image library was based on the understanding that copyright is held by the creator, that a non-human creator (not being a legal person) cannot hold copyright, and that the images are thus in the public domain.

Slater stated in August 2014 that as a result of the pictures being available on Wikipedia, he had lost ‘£10,000 or more in income’ and that it was ‘killing [his] business’ as a wildlife photographer. In December 2014, the United States Copyright Office stated that works created by a non-human, such as a photograph taken by a monkey, are not copyrightable. A number of legal experts in the US and UK have nevertheless argued that Slater’s role in the photographic process may have been sufficient to establish a valid copyright claim, though this decision would have to be made by a court.

In a separate dispute, PETA tried to use the monkey selfies to establish a legal precedent that animals should be declared copyright holders. Slater had published a book containing the photographs through self-publishing company Blurb, Inc. In 2015, PETA filed a lawsuit against Slater and Blurb, requesting that the monkey be assigned copyright and that PETA be appointed to administer proceeds from the photos for the endangered species’ benefit. In dismissing PETA’s case, the court ruled that a monkey cannot own copyright, under U.S. law. PETA appealed, and in 2017, both PETA and the photographer agreed to a settlement in which Slater would donate a portion of future revenues on the photographs to wildlife organizations. However, the court of appeals declined to dismiss the appeal and declined to vacate the lower court judgment. In 2018, the appeals court affirmed that animals can not legally hold copyrights and expressed concern that PETA’s motivations had been to promote their own interests rather than to protect the legal rights of animals.

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